Photo Credits: Alfredo Brant
Carolina Santos, João Moreira, Lilith Kappelmann, Maria de Brito Matias
MA Students in Culture Studies, The Lisbon Consortium
As we approach the gallery, a glimpse of a warm shining light emerges. The shimmering glow and the intense red colour naturally attract our senses. In a second, something tells us that the message is significant. We are attentive, but in a way, we are calm. The fast-paced contemporary life teaches us to close our eyes and keep on going. Bright lights do not bother us anymore and red signs are easily ignored. As the anaesthetic effect hits, the response is quick: “It’s just another flashing light demanding my attention”, we may think. Fighting the inherent automaticity, our sight focuses for one brief second as our overactive senses ease. Reality calls and, this time, it appeals for more than attention. The bright light says “Refugee Camp”, blazing red on the dark wall. Instantly, our mind wanders. Refugee Camp? Why Refugee Camp? Why here, and why now?
Perspective — including the one of the visitor — plays a vital role in understanding this work. This can be observed once we draw our attention to its original form. Indeed, Refugee camp (2017-2020) is part of a larger phrase “I have never seen a refugee camp” that composes the installation in its whole.
This concept came to Tatiana Macedo’s mind almost a decade earlier. However, it was only in 2017, during an artistic residency in Berlin, that the work was brought to life by virtue of an invitation to participate in the 23rd edition of the International Exhibition in Brandenburg “Rohkunstbau XXIII” under the theme “The Beauty in Difference“.
Undoubtedly, adding “I have never seen a” to “Refugee camp” evokes an entirely different approach. Moving from a strictly personal perspective connected to our unique view of the world, our experiences and lack of them, the “I” of the artist blends with each viewer´s perspective as light is shed on such a collective idea of what a refugee camp encompasses in our contemporary times, which seem
to be revisiting our (not too distant) past. Nonetheless, the intimacy of this work shines through as we focus on the fact that the neon is shaped by the artist’s handwriting. This technique, which many of us are unlearning these days, is like a trace that leads into our inner being.
The act of writing, be it through images, text or sound, is an integral part of Tatiana Macedo’s creative process. From a research, critical, fictional, poetic, essayistic or documentary methodology and style, Tatiana Macedo connects words and images in an expanded field that revolves around the boundaries between the visible and the invisible. In a way, the sentence in front of us
reconstructs itself as a picture, as a recollection of memories and perceptions affiliated to each individual’s idea of what a “Refugee Camp” might mean or be like.
Indeed, we live in times of forged empathy, as Jean Baudrillard argues, we — as a postmodern society — became dependent on an imitation of reality, which is described as the simulation or simulacrum (Baudrillard, 1994). Following that idea, contemporary media — through images, that are imitations — creates the building blocks that we use to form our vision of the world. Consequently, we gradually lose the ability to distinguish between nature and artifice and, therefore, between true and false. In a similar trend, this work connects the power of language and how it constructs reality. In other words, Refugee camp provokes an awakening of the viewer when it shows us a (daily) dose of simulation that we constantly (are led to) choose to favour over the real.
This idea is also emphasized through the choice of the medium: originally designed to capture the attention of the passer-by in order to activate consumerist impulses, neon reveals how advertisement conquered the urban space. Baudrillard would note that we become obsessed with mass-consumerism fuelled by visual (media) images: “No relief, no perspective, no vanishing point where the gaze might risk losing itself, but a total screen where, in their uninterrupted display, the billboards and the products themselves act as equivalent and successive signs.” (Baudrillard, 1994:52). From constant notifications to flashing light advertisements, the restlessness of our fast information society acts as a perpetual signal in our minds. Consequently, the amount of information we are fed through news media on the topic of refugees, by now, has caused an emotional disconnection to this social question. Nonetheless, the amount of displaced people in refugee camps has not decreased at all. The fact that we - through media images — possess “the right to look” (Mirzoeff, 2011) reveals a hegemonic structure that is hierarchic and it can in turn also make us look away from (apparently) distant realities that are faced in refugee camps. Thus, the power of this artwork lies in its ambivalence: the atmospheric red on the dark wall resembles a silent call in the night, but at the same time its immediate and incisive presence let it speak far from noiselessly.
Hannah Arendt, German-American philosopher who wrote extensively about refugee politics reminds us that “powerlessness has become the major experience of their lives” (1951:vii) when addressing the reality of refugees. This helplessness is unequivocal when we look at it through the nation-state structure. Human rights, supposed to be sacred and inalienable, are in fact denied to those who do not own the power of belonging. The so-called universal human rights are actually dependent on our nationality, which can act as a safe harbour or a torment. Indispensable rights, for instance electricity, are not necessarily an integral part of a refugee’s reality. The same power that feeds the neon in front of the viewer is not accessible to nine out of ten people living in refugee camps. (Green, 2018) Hereby, the piece reflects different frameworks of power and how they are highlighted or silenced by our current society (and, in the end, by all of us).
It is at this point, of consciousness of the power structures forming our thoughts, that this constructed reality is looked at with resistance. The matter and the words that make Tatiana Macedo’s “a refugee camp” do what art does at its best — it operates in the realm of perception (Luhmann, 1984), asking for a shift in the ways we read and, ultimately, to use our power to, rather than silencing and shadowing parts of the narratives that make up the world, to break silence into pieces.
LIST OF REFERENCES
— Arendt, Hannah. 1951. The Origins of Totalitarianism. San Diego/ New York/ London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
— Baudrillard, Jean. 1994. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
— Green, Chandler. 2018. “5 Reasons to care about powering refugee camps.” Accessed March 12th. https://unfoundation.org/blog/post/5-reasons-care-powering-refugee-camps
— Luhmann, Niklas. 1984. Soziale Systeme. Grundriß einer allgemeinen Theorie. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
— Mirzoeff, Nicholas. 2011. “The Right to Look.” Critical Inquiry Vol. 37, No. 3 (Spring 2011), pp. 473-496.